“The [Chinese] people’s wishes for and needs for democracy and freedom are irresistible.” Fighting words, indeed. They could quite easily have come from Liu Xiaobo, the Chinese activist serving an 11-year prison sentence for subversion who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize on Friday in recognition of his long record of calling for gradual political change. Instead, they were spoken by Wen Jiabao, China’s premier, in an interview he gave last week to CNN before the Nobel announcement.
China’s economic success has been so dramatic and sustained that it can feel as if the big political questions about how the country should be governed, which came to a head in Tiananmen Square two decades ago, have simply faded into irrelevance. Yet Mr Wen’s remarks show that debates about Chinese political reform do not take place only in Oslo – even some of the country’s senior leaders admit there is unfinished business.
Certainly, many will question whether it is the Nobel committee’s job to promote political change by embarrassing Beijing. For the Chinese authorities, the immediate instinct is to make this a straight conflict between China and the west, which wants to slow its rise. “The Nobel Peace Prize has been reduced to a political tool of western interests,” the Global Times, a tabloid with close connections to the Communist party, thundered over the weekend. “What they’re doing now is using the Peace Prize to tear a hole in Chinese society.”
And it is not just overt nationalists who will resent the outside interference. There are plenty of educated Chinese who feel that the country does not get enough credit for its economic progress or the very real expansion in personal freedoms over the past 30 years.
There is also a certain amount of trepidation about how the regime will respond. Celebration banquets in Beijing were broken up by the police with supporters of Mr Liu temporarily detained. China has a plethora of non-governmental organisations in areas such as the environment, which have won space to operate in recent years and often adopt an almost radical pragmatism when it comes to politics, sticking strictly within the limits of the possible. Many will fear a backlash from a wounded Beijing and maybe resent the provocation that the prize represents.
Yet the Nobel for Mr Liu could also have all sorts of powerful ripple effects in a fast-changing society. China might not be seething with people who openly support multi-party elections and who want to see the Communist party swept from power but growing sections of society believe strongly in freedoms of the press, of assembly and of protest – the very rights notionally protected in the Chinese constitution that the Nobel Prize committee highlighted. And they expect the Communist party to honour more of those rights.
Jailed for 11 years for organising a pro-democracy petition, Mr Liu is a standard-bearer for political reform but in many ways he is not the main challenge for the authorities. A writer-intellectual in the mould of Vaclav Havel, the former Czech president who nominated him for the Nobel, Mr Liu is part of an older generation of dissidents who have been marginalised since Tiananmen. Few ordinary Chinese have heard of him.
Instead, the pressure is more diffuse but from a broader range of sources. There are the well-to-do suburban residents who happily organise large protests when their property rights are affected and make sure television cameras are there to watch them. China’s fast-growing legal community is full of people – from judges to citizens with a grievance – who are trying to build more independent courts.
And then there is the internet, which, in spite of all the efforts of the authorities to censor and mould discussion, is also a deep well of rebellious irony. One of the more commented online subjects over the past week has been Mr Wen’s CNN interview and the fact that it was barely covered in the mainstream media.
The Chinese party-state is such a blizzard of activity, that it is often easy to overlook the increasingly vibrant society emerging from behind its Leninist shadow. Many members of this new society spent the weekend quietly thanking the Nobel committee for its show of support.